How does one go about personally branding themselves? What makes for a good personal brand? We wanted to answer these questions around how to become a personal brand by sharing our own stories of our journeys to personal branding. As we always encourage our clients, storytelling is the most powerful form of branding.
Plus, we’re huge fans of Guy Raz and How I Built This, and this is our blend of that method with our approach of intrinsic branding, uncovering and sharing who you are from the inside out.
As a child, I had a rather strong sense of myself. That sense was felt internally. It was my companion as I imagined my future and literally played out how I would weave the vibrant threads of my diverse passions together to form a life. In other words, the private me saw a public me in the future, my name in lights or on the building. I envisioned being a big deal one day.
Once I graduated from college, the grand ideas I held about my future notoriety had torn. Being a household name or the face of a company no longer appealed to me. Hurt, dulled and challenged by my first couple of post-college professional experiences, I desired a behind-the-scenes pursuit, where I could apply my excellence at expressing, without exposing too much of my heart. My love of language, my empathy and endless curiosity and the kindness of strangers brought me into journalism. Within the structure of the newsroom, I was free to tell stories, to craft language and to listen intently to what people really wanted to say — and stay beautifully behind the curtain.
I grew up in my career, becoming an editor, then a regional editor, then a publisher. As I matured, I accepted but remained dismissive about the recognition I received and the perceptions people had of me as a community member.
Full of dichotomies, I placed a great deal of emphasis on the integrity of my byline — while wanting to maintain distance between myself and how people who didn’t know me personally perceived me.
There was a part of me that thought the only way to have a personal brand (I would not have called it that) was for it to come about organically. It could not be something I intentionally worked on. I saw any such effort as false and fraudulent.
Changing industries and gathering more responsibility and influence in my career shifted a bit of that perspective. I saw how coming in the door with a strong reputation for excellence benefitted me. Yet, I still viewed myself as a behind-the-scenes supporter, and not a front-of-stage performer.
It wasn’t until I started Root + River that I had to fully cede my position on not branding myself. I accepted that I had a personal brand and that it deserved attention. This was so uncomfortable initially, it was almost painful.
Little by little over time, I grew more accepting of working on my brand as I came to understand three core truths.
- Branding is paying attention to and articulating who you are at your core, what you believe in and how you act from that place. It is validating your own worth.
- Branding is a method for taking care of yourself, not a way to fine tune a constructed image. It’s about continually being curious about your evolution. And it’s about doing all that with intention.
- My “brand,” ie, my stories, observations and experiences could touch people in a healing and positive way.
These lessons allowed me to let go of my ego, embrace myself more fully and invest in how I showed that to the world.
Today, my personal branding practice is about creating art, (I share art in words and drawings through Root + River, my monthly Thought Cookie and on EmJoy, Inc.), being as consistent as is possible as I express that (regular Monday blog posts on LinkedIn on branding-related topics and leadership), and attending to the subtler beauties of life (noticing and pointing out things most people don’t see or name).
Technically, my following has grown consistently (from nada), though I am not very good at paying attention to my growth.
What I am most focused on is how to touch the hearts of one person who might find resonance, hope or comfort in me as a mirror to themselves or their world.
If you struggle with the idea of personal branding, this might help you as well.
My first conscious effort to brand myself was in 1986. I was 16 years old and had just moved with my family from the sleepy rural town of Baker, OR to the “big city,” of Portland, OR. High school in Baker had not been a fun experience. I was shy, awkward and intensely insecure. I instinctively knew that the move was a chance to re-brand myself. So I created my own style (best dressed – class of ‘88!), got involved in youth politics, joined the debate team. Who knew I would go on to become a brand consultant!
I didn’t consciously work on my personal brand again until 2004 when I launched my first business venture. This strategy was an ego-infused attempt to stand out in the small, cliquish world of Boise ad agencies as a branding guy. I came up with the handle “agencyunderground” and the title “Chief Prognosticator”. I wore a t-shirt under a suit jacket (gasp!), drove a Mustang wrapped in our firm’s messaging and loudly proclaimed my opposition to advertising. Yes, it’s kind of embarrassing now. But hey, it’s a journey. Looking back, I realize that most of these efforts were fueled by a deep insecurity; a desire to have an identity.
In 2014, I wrote a book on personal branding for dudes called “Human Bacon.” It’s held up fairly well, despite my personal brand significantly evolving since then. I still believe that the first 10 seconds and last 10 seconds establish your brand; that your brand must be rooted in your values and standards; that being eloquent is always a differentiator.
Moving to Austin in 2014, I finally felt like I was just branding me – not creating an image or a constructed identity. That really came into being in January of 2020, where I finally embraced that I’m a creative and also more openly shared my spirituality. I’m more than a “branding guy.” I’m a writer, a poet, a mentor. I’m an entrepreneur and co-founder. I am an ally for women and people of color. All of my personal branding efforts are focused on promoting these convictions.
Although my intention with my personal brand have evolved, I still use pretty much the same tools:
- Creating provocative content and events with Emily for Root + River
- Podcast appearances – with Emily and solo.
- Writing and sharing a personal essay every Monday (Every Monday since the first Monday in 2020!)
- Posting near-daily musings that I’m inspired to share (see them on Insta @fosterthinking)
- Speaking and facilitating
- Expanding my network – especially on Insta and LinkedIn
- Building 1:1 relationships
If you want to establish and grow your personal brand, here is my counsel to you:
- Organize it around your True Self
- Organize it around your convictions and values, not your offerings
- Don’t be an asshole